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Trapped with the turtles: David Whitley

With hours until the connecting flight and plenty of time to explore a wildlife refuge, sometimes a great find really is too good to be true

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Around the world there are places we’d never choose to go to but are occasionally forced to spend time in. For example this might be due to inconveniently long layovers between connecting flights. Guam is one such spot — any flights to Pacific destinations that don’t connect through Fiji, Honolulu or Auckland will generally go through this island.

I stepped off the plane from Palau at around 5.30am, tired as hell and faintly delirious. I’d made no plans, but given that my flight out was at 8.35pm, I wasn’t going to just sit and fester in the airport. A rental car, I surmised, would do just as well as a hotel — I could always find a quiet spot, throw the seat back for a few hours and catch some kip. And when I was feeling less space cadety, I could have a little explore.

Knowing nothing about the island or what I could do, I asked the chap at the car hire office for a map. “Ah,” he replied. “We’ve only got one in Japanese. Will that do?”

Well, at least it had the major road marked on it, even if the trumpeted attractions would remain a mystery. I decided to go by road signs, dipping into old Spanish forts, Second World War sites and scenic lookouts, before pulling over for a much-needed sleep in a tsunami evacuation area.

I awoke to find an ox beside the car, doing what an ox tends to do after a particularly fibrous meal. It was also tipping down with rain. But I’d remembered a lesson from Palau; if it’s raining in one part of the country, it’ll probably be bright sunshine in another. I’d head north. Only one road went all the way to the top, and the ever-so-helpful Japanese script indicated that something was at the top of it.

After many potholes and blunt warnings that if I strayed off-road I’d be trespassing on a US air force base I discovered I was in the Ritidian Point Wildlife Refuge. It’s a beach on federal land that’s been set aside for turtles laying eggs. It’s a properly pretty white sand affair, though — perfect for a sunbathe and a snorkel. Better still, there’s a little track branching off from the main car park that you can just about get down in a car (although you probably don’t want to tell the hire firm you’ve done so). Little pseudo parking spots cut into the forest mean you essentially get your own campsite, own stretch of beach and own collection of butterflies fluttering around your head.

A couple of hours’ kip on the sand; a dip in the surf: it’s the sort of layover I can deal with quite happily.

At 4.30pm, I reluctantly decided to head back to the airport. But as I arrive at the refuge exit, I find the gate bolted shut. A sign tells me what I really needed to know earlier: the gate closes at 4pm. I search for a number to call but can only find one on a Portaloo. Then I look at my phone — emergency signal only. I’ve no choice but to phone the police and tell them they’d got an idiot tourist on the loose.

The voice on the other end seemed greatly amused. “Oh dear, you’ve got a problem. They’ve all gone home.” He tried putting me through to the rangers, but the phone rang. And rang. And rang. No one was going to get me out of there. I’d have to abandon the hire car, walk a few miles and hitch.

Unless…

After numerous attempts, I inch the car through the metal gate posts. What follows is a terrifying cacophony of screechy wheel noises, engine pain, suspension heart attacks and horrible scraping sounds on the undercarriage. Little by little, though, I manage to nurse it through.

A tip for you: If you think you’ve damaged your rental car, drive through as many muddy puddles as you can and get it properly filthy. The mud doesn’t half hide the scrapes. You just have to hope the man in charge of returns will sign it off as fine before anyone notices.

 

Published in the October 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)